Review /

Agnes Denes Firstsite / Colchester

Agnes Denes’s first solo exhibition in the UK since 1979 began with black-and-white photographic documentation from Rice/Tree/Burial(1968–79), an action first realized in 1968 in Sullivan County, New York.

For Denes, this was a symbolic event, in which the artist announced her commitment to environmental issues and human concerns. Denes planted rice to represent life, chained trees to indicate interference with life and nature, and buried her haiku poetry to symbolize thinking processes. Denes kept no copies of her poetry; their burial was a sacrifice of sorts reflecting a commitment to the “new analytical art form” based on the transitional triangulation of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The triangular form became central to Denes’s work. In the Pyramids Series, drawings and prints from 1967 onwards consider the design and symbolism of the pyramid as a representation not only of “logical structures, architectural innovations and society building structures” but also of the “past and the possible future.” In The Human Argument, the triangle is used as a diagrammatic form through which to visualize “a satiric commentary” on “human self-importance.”

Napoleonic Series I Investigation of World Rulers II – Some More Napoleons Overlooking the Elba. Lithograph.
Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York. Photo: John Jones

There is a distinct sense of humor to Denes’s logic, summarized in other bodies of work that illustrate the artist’s approach to her subject matter: the human condition. “Map Projections,” drawings and prints produced between 1973 and 1979, convey world maps rendered in three-dimensional shapes, from an egg, a cuboid, to a sausage. Presented alongside pieces from the Philosophical Drawings series, including Liberated Sex Machine(1970/2013), in which sexual desires and drives are conveyed in a machinic diagram, complete with engineering-style terminology, like “Captive Screw,” was a selection of Body Prints, in which breasts and a penis were printed directly onto gridded graph paper using computer ink.
Then there is Tree Mountain, Denes’s largest pyramidal form: a manmade mountain measuring 420 meters long and 270 meters wide dedicated in 1996 in Ylöjärvi, Finland. 11,000 people were invited to plant the same number of trees according to a spiral design Denes had laid out in accordance to a mathematical formula she conceived. A 400-year project, the intention is for this to become the first manmade virgin forest in the world, and the idea is to reproduce the project elsewhere. Like philosophy itself, and the work of this artist in general, the work is at once a monument to civilization and a sanctuary from it.

Liberated Sex Machine, 1970/2013. Lithograph.
Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York. Photo: John Jones

by Stephanie Bailey